Roe v. Wade is a lightning rod in the U.S. — but the irony is that it upholds several of our country’s oft-proclaimed core values. While the landmark SCOTUS case is frequently cited as the legalization of abortion, the case actually deliberates the concept of personal autonomy and liberty.
Specifically, Roe v. Wade articulates how states can regulate abortion, upholds the right to privacy in specific personal decisions and reiterates that it is not the state’s job to uphold a specific ideology. As we reckon with the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned in June 2022, every single person should consider the precedent that this could set. By dismantling the landmark case that protects an individual’s right to private decision-making about their body, conservatives are opening the door to the possibility of more state-level regulation of private decisions.
Let’s be clear: There is a fundamental difference between the regulation of health care practices that can lead to the death of your community (like not wearing a mask), and those that cause an individual physical, financial and social harm (like an unwanted pregnancy).
However, for those expressing concern about government regulation of health care, Roe v. Wade is a critical part of defining what constitutes a private decision that should be made by an individual or family instead of the government, such as contraceptive use, disability rights, the right to send children to religiously affiliated schools or to homeschool them, among other traditionally conservative priorities. In this way, the anti-mask, anti-vax and anti-choice movement is working against its own stated interest of “small government.”
At its core, Roe v. Wade is the protection of privacy and liberty, specifically the constitutional right to privacy within the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which has been interpreted for more than a century as encompassing privacy as a key tenet of liberty. The Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973 was that a person’s control over their own pregnancy should count as privacy. If a person is forced to carry an unplanned pregnancy, it presents a true risk to their physical, mental and financial well-being, and opens them up to social stigma. It also, importantly, does not define when life begins, because they argue, it is not the role of the state to determine that one theory of life is more correct than another, or that one ideology is preferred to another.
In addition, Roe v. Wade articulates that a state cannot regulate abortion to the detriment of a mother’s health. With this, the case signals that the life of a person is valued independently of the fact that they are carrying a fetus. Again, this might not sound significant, but without this recognition of the individual humanity of pregnant people, our rapidly increasing rates of maternal mortality (the worst among high-income countries), our lack of postnatal care for mothers, our pregnancy discrimination trends, and the many other ways we fail those giving birth could become even worse at the state level.
Don’t for a minute think that removing these protections would only impact those with uteruses — protecting against financial, physical and social harm is, unsurprisingly, good for an entire economy. There are myriad studies that demonstrate that a society writ large benefits when people are able to plan their pregnancies, when they can avoid the financial and physical harm caused by an unplanned pregnancy, when they can remain in the workforce, finish school, provide for their children and families, and make space for their own personal mental and physical well-being.
While overturning Roe may signal to conservatives that the Supreme Court is willing to buck the majority opinion for the sake of a moral positioning, they also risk losing their own right to make private decisions around their families. It could set us up for the reversal of the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut, which upheld a married couple’s right to access contraceptives in support of personal autonomy. Specifically, the right to privacy established in Griswold and reaffirmed by Roe was the building block on which the court upheld key rights like the right for parents to homeschool or to make their own medical care decisions.
As it seems likely that SCOTUS will at minimum strip the fundamental protections of Roe in June of 2022, it is worth pointing out to the folks cheering this change that, just because you don’t see yourself getting an abortion does not mean that you are exempt from the consequences of restricting other people’s rights. This is a lesson that history teaches us again and again. Maybe we should listen.
The reality is that Roe v. Wade was meant to be a starting point, and the case — quite honestly — is insufficient and has contributed to abortion access inequity across the country. If we continue to qualify our belief in personal autonomy — for instance, by naming pregnancy termination as undeserving of privacy — it paves the way for a potentially slow and painful removal of other basic freedoms. The role of the government is to help mitigate costs on our society — like reducing preventable death by distributing the COVID-19 vaccinations, by implementing speed limits and seat belt laws to reduce road deaths, or by taxing cigarettes to offset health care costs — and to help us live collectively while operating independently with the things closest to our physical selves, like pregnancy.
We all have an interest in protecting the right to abortion, because we all risk over-regulation of basic freedoms and the loss of privacy that has made space for LGBTQ rights, disability rights, education rights, marriage rights, contraceptive rights, child rights, and much more. Misplaced advocacy for overturning Roe could pave the way for a scary future, especially in states with conservative legislatures.
We all should advocate for the protecting of private decision-making and the reduction of unnecessary costs on our communities. To mitigate the dangerous consequences of overturning Roe, we need to invest more in grassroots organizations that are working to build strong state- and local-level coalitions. Policies have always been made at the state level, and in the post-Roe United States, it is essential to build stronger ground-up coalitions.
While SCOTUS may signal its position in next year, the majority of Americans still believe in a person’s right to access abortion care, and every person should be prepared to mobilize for the protection of private decision-making around true, individual choices.